"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
02 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
Let’s get one thing clear: the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles did not underachieve because of their hubris. The Dream Team moniker came about only because Vince Young, a lowly backup at the time and never the most erudite presence in the room, chose his words poorly during an introductory media session. Most of the Eagles distanced themselves from Young’s declaration. And it’s not as if those who didn’t were throwing Miami Heat-like preseason pep rallies.
The real reason the Eagles underachieved was they never figured out how to properly piece their tremendous individual parts into a fine-turned machine. It had nothing to do with "attitude" or "focus" or "desire." It had everything to do with strategy and execution. The offense relied too much on big plays and did not always feature enough of LeSean McCoy, even though he had become arguably the best all-around running back in the NFC. The defense was stale and ill-conceived, featuring the now infamous wide-nine looks that worked perfectly to highlight Philly’s weaknesses at linebacker. The star-studded secondary was incongruent, thanks to youth at safety and miscast players at cornerback (Nnamdi Asomugha in the slot!?). These are the things that lead to losing five games just on blown fourth-quarter leads alone.
If all this sounds like a description of bad coaching, well ... it is. The Eagles were mismanaged in 2011 -– and head coach/de facto general manager Andy Reid would probably not deny it. For the past 13 years (longest current tenure in the NFL), Reid has been one of the most stable, effective leaders in pro football. Despite what the East Pennsylvania and South Jersey talk show callers might say, there’s no reason to think he can’t right this extremely talented ship. Though owner Jeffrey Lurie described 2011 as "without question, the most disappointing season" since he’s owned the team, he unequivocally voiced his continued commitment to Reid immediately after the season. (Of course, he did not address Reid’s contract, which expires after 2013.)
At this point, all Reid can do to not be pilloried in the City of Brotherly Love is get this team back to the Super Bowl (Reid’s improved relations with the media that Lurie has asked for means nothing to everyone other than maybe the team public relations department.) In other words, Reid must do what many felt should have been done last season. On paper, the Eagles are a favorite to do what they could not last season. But they still have to address some of the issues that derailed them. Talent alone isn’t enough.
The Eagles must decide if they want sustainability to their offense. That may sound simple –- who wouldn’t want sustainability to their offense? -– but it’s anything but. If they do want sustainability, they’ll have to rewire the system so that it runs primarily through LeSean McCoy. There’s just too much evidence that proves you can’t find sustainability through Michael Vick.
Understand, though, that when you have a talent like Vick, and when you have receiving talent like DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, you don’t necessarily need sustainability in order to succeed. With Vick the last two years, the Eagle offense has left a lot of good plays on the field, it has endured a lot of senseless mistakes (even if Vick’s turnover numbers aren’t atrocious), and it has had a disproportionate share of highs and lows. But the highs can be so ridiculously high that it’s often worth it. In the big scheme of things, Philly’s immense raw talent has produced an offense ranking eighth or better in both scoring and yardage each of the past two seasons.
If the Eagles are content to keep relying on shot plays and chunk yardage, they have perfect resources in a lively-armed quarterback with otherworldly scrambling ability and two extremely fast, extremely quick, playmaking wideouts. And, keep in mind, McCoy, even if not the focal point, is also a phenomenal playmaker. Last season he rushed for 1,309 yards, added 315 through the air and scored 20 touchdowns.
But if the Eagles want to become more balanced and consistent, they’ll need to settle for being "more methodical" by placing a greater emphasis on the run. What’s clear is that you can’t find consistency through Vick. Though improved, his pocket mechanics are still not NFL quality. He has a tendency to stare at the pass rush. He doesn’t read and dissect defenses well. He has a poor feel for timing when it comes to executing his drop-back and understanding receiver routes. He’s a "see it" passer rather than an "anticipation" passer, and most of the time he doesn’t see it anyway (which is why he runs). Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg can work with Vick all he wants. Deep down, Mornhinweg knows (or he should know) that, at 32, Vick is what he is.
What Vick is, of course, is a sandlot player. The most naturally gifted sandlot player in NFL history, in fact. The Eagles would fully embrace that and let him run 10 times a game while having him drop back with only loosely defined plans every snap, but unfortunately, it’s been shown that Vick has no chance of staying healthy that way. Even when confined to Reid’s safe West Coast system, he still takes way too many hits: injuries cost him four games in 2010 and three games in 2011. For security, the Eagles invested a third-round pick in 6-foot-5, 244-pound pocket passer Nick Foles, who will compete with Mike Kafka and Trent Edwards for backup duties.
Most likely, Reid and Mornhinweg will wind up doing what they’ve been doing: wishfully seeking offensive stability by training Vick to play with discipline. After all, Reid has never been able to bring himself to run the ball regularly over a sustained period.
A way to help Vick is to design more one-read throws for him. This would include things like continuing to incorporate McCoy in the passing game (primarily as a screen receiver). Also, running more plays for tight end Brent Celek. Celek was banged up at times last season, and his route running suffered, but his skills suggest he’s a capable 50-catch-type tight end. With two stars lining up outside of him, he’ll often get to work against a linebacker. If Celek for some reason fades more this season, the Eagles can turn to third-year backup Clay Harbor. Another idea for helping Vick is to feature more of Jason Avant, who is a very stellar target inside. More emphasis on Avant would probably lead to more play-action passes, which are one-read designs that also get Vick operating on the move.
Of course, as long as Jackson and Maclin are healthy, they’ll be the central figures of the aerial attack –- and rightfully so. Jackson finally got his long-term contract (five years, $47 million), so hopefully we can all stop focusing on his body language and instead go back to marveling at how quickly he eats up ground. Reid and Mornhinweg do a good job of creating mismatches for Jackson by aligning him all over various formations (especially tight or in-motion, which creates more one-on-one matchups). As for Maclin, the talent is there, but he must settle in as a more reliable intermediate receiver. He had too many crucial drops in 2011.
Though far from a bruising between-the-tackles presence, McCoy has the lateral explosiveness and multidimensional burst to headline an offense even as an almost strictly outside runner (the way Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles did in 2010). The Eagles, however, having just signed McCoy to a five-year, $45 million contract, have hinted at concerns about his long-term wear-and-tear (even though they came way too sporadically at times, McCoy got a lot of touches last season). Don’t be surprised if some of McCoy’s touches get absorbed by 2011 fifth-round pick Dion Lewis or rookies Bryce Brown (seventh round) and Chris Polk (undrafted).
McCoy’s rare ability to accelerate off both a standstill and off lateral movement makes him extremely effective on two run plays: the sprint draw, and the stretch handoff. Both are staple plays for any offense involving line coach Howard Mudd (who saw these plays mastered by Edgerrin James when he was in Indy). Mudd’s front five personnel should be equipped well enough to handle these agility-based tactics.
It’s a front five that won’t be as good as it was last season, though. All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters is out after tearing his Achilles’. His replacement, Demetress Bell, is basically on a one-year fill-in trial. A lot of people like Bell’s upside, but there’s a reason no team moved to sign him during the first month of free agency: his history of injuries and slow feet in pass protection. The Eagles signed Bell only because they know King Dunlap bends too much at the waist to be a starting left tackle. Dunlap, in fact, will most likely be pushed by fifth-round rookie Dennis Kelly for top backup duties.
Right tackle Todd Herremans can play the left side if need be, but that’s not ideal. Herremans must bounce back from a topsy-turvy season in which he was beaten too often on passing downs. Inside, last year’s sixth-round rookie center, Jason Kelce, has intriguing mobility and a high football IQ; the caveat is he struggles whenever a defender lines up directly over his nose. Kelce’s fellow 2011 rookie, first-rounder Danny Watkins, got better as last season went on, but at this point he appears to be someone who survives more than thrives. Finally, left guard Evan Mathis is not the unsung hero that smart bloggers like to say he is. He’s adequate, but has too much of a tendency to play tall and get overpowered. That’s why his new five-year, $25.5 million contract came with only $7 million guaranteed.
We don’t know if it was defensive coordinator Juan Castillo who blew it in 2011 or if it was the people directing Castillo who blew it. All that matters now is that the Eagles defense must improve in 2012. There was much commotion about Philly’s use of the wide-nine up front. The wide-nine is a technique where the defensive ends align extremely far outside; it creates better pass-rushing angles off the edges but puts pressure on the defensive tackles and inside linebackers against the run. The more concerning issue, though, was the way Nnamdi Asomugha was used.
The Eagles signed Asomugha to a five-year deal worth $60 million, then seemed to make every effort to take him out of his comfort zone. Asomugha is an elite man-to-man corner. He’s physical at the line and has an uncanny sense for using the sideline. Often, though, the Eagles asked him to be Charles Woodson. They lined up him up over the slot in nickel packages and even had him play linebacker in dime sets. Unlike Woodson, Asomugha does not have flexible body control. He’s a rather stiff athlete with poor instincts and swivel in traffic. Using him the way Philly used him is akin to buying a sports car and purposing it as a tow truck.
It’s possible the Eagles misused Asomugha because they felt that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, another prized off-season acquisition who thrives as a man-defender, would have an even tougher time transitioning from outside to inside. We won’t know now because, with Asante Samuel traded to Atlanta, Rodgers-Cromartie and Asomugha can stay outside exclusively while Joselio Hanson resumes the full-time duties in the slot. Samuel won’t be missed, by the way. He is a good playmaker, but his vast limitations (tackling, bump-and-run coverage, pretty much anything that involves touching an opponent) really hamstrung this unit. Philadelphia’s secondary is less talented, but ultimately better off without him. And, if all goes well, it can still be deeper without him. Hanson’s eight years of experience alone make him valuable in the extremely tough slot role, and he’ll be challenged by smallish but springy fourth-round rookie Brandon Boykin and last year’s raw-but-prototypical third-rounder, Curtis Marsh.
It won’t matter how well the corners play if the safeties can’t get better. The Eagles need youngsters Nate Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett to at least be comfortable enough to move around and disguise coverages before the snap. Allen has shown some promise, but his recognition skills have been a bit of a question mark at times. Jarrett was a second-round pick last season who barely got on the field. Perhaps an offseason of team activities can help bring him along. However, if Reid and general manager Howie Roseman were that confident in his immediate prospects, they probably wouldn’t have signed declining-but-accomplished centerfield veteran O.J. Atogwe. Atogwe –- who may prove to be washed up -– will compete for playing time with limited athlete Kurt Coleman.
As for that wide-nine ... it’s not all bad. It’s a big reason defensive end Trent Cole, a relentless force who plays with great leverage, is coming off his best season as a pro. And it’s a big reason Jason Babin has 30.5 sacks over the past two years. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn has always done a great job teaching the wide-nine. Its basic premise is for the ends to play pass first and worry about the run only if convenient. Washburn has a plethora of talent to utilize here. Behind Cole and Babin is second-round rookie Vinny Curry, who may not have amazing burst but can be something of a poor man’s Cole by playing in a backup role that should keep him fresh. There’s also Brandon Graham, who, after missing 16 games in his first two years with knee problems, is hoping to finally show the explosiveness that made him a first-round pick. If Graham can’t get right, Darryl Tapp (a solid in-line player) and undrafted second-year pro Phillip Hunt (who flashed some athleticism as an inside-crasher down the stretch last season) are viable options.
The wide-nine –- which, by the way, the Eagles don’t use on every single down -– does put some added pressure on the players inside. Drafting supremely athletic defensive tackle Fletcher Cox in the first round is not a bad answer to that pressure, though Cox may turn out to be more of a one-gap penetrator than plugger. The Eagles would be just fine with that. Cox may play a bigger role in his rookie season than originally expected, as veteran Mike Patterson has been shut down because of a slow recovery from an off-season brain operation to correct a congenital tangle of blood vessels.
At the other defensive tackle spot, Cullen Jenkins, who is always a handful, can penetrate or be a clogger. Off the bench, Antonio Dixon can disruptively fill space in short spurts, while the high-octane Derek Landri makes impact plays when given the chance.
The main improvements from the run defense, though, will have to come from the back middle defenders. The safeties must get better as open-field tacklers, which shouldn’t be as much of a problem given that none of the safeties this year are Jarrad Page. The linebackers also need to get better at ... well, everything ... but most notably, taking on blocks. The trade for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans should help. He has good instincts and has always been fundamentally sound. Also, next to him is a second-round pick in Mychal Kendricks, who is undersized but was highly productive at Cal.
The Eagles’ nickel linebackers could still be an issue, however, and in today’s pass-happy NFL, nickel ‘backers can be more important than starting linebackers. After all, the Eagles lined up just two linebackers on a majority of their snaps last season. Ryans figures to get a crack in the passing sub packages simply because he’ll know what he’s doing, but there’s a reason the Texans didn’t play him in their sub packages. Second-year player Brian Rolle has the agility to thrive in space, though he needs to sharpen his understanding of the game. Same goes for his fellow second-year player, Casey Matthews, who made too many mistakes on all three downs as a rookie. Jamar Chaney, a seventh-round pick in 2010, might actually be a better all-around athlete than Rolle and Matthews, and he certainly has a better understanding of the defense’s nuances. Another nickel candidate is 2010 fourth-round Keenan Clayton, who got snaps in this role down the stretch last season.
The Eagles are adamant about improving their special teams -– something they should be able to do now that Bobby April is back to having an entire off-season to work with his young backups. There’s been a big emphasis placed on kick returns. Dion Lewis handled those duties last season, but his longest return was just 33 yards. Brandon Boykin was drafted to (hopefully) win the kick return job. On punt returns, DeSean Jackson is downright terrifying. Occasionally, Jeremy Maclin will spell Jackson in this department. Punter Chas Henry was somewhat disappointing as a rookie last season and will most likely face competition in training camp. Ryan Tydlacka is that competition for now, but don’t be surprised if a veteran is brought in. Kicker Alex Henery is coming off an impressive 24/27 debut season.
There is a lot of raw talent here but not all of it is polished. It’s up to the coaches to make the best of it. Hoping players could polish their own talent didn’t work last season, so the key becomes scheming ways to hide weaknesses. That may seem dicey, and for most teams it would be. But the raw talent on most teams is not this extraordinary.
12 comments, Last at 11 Aug 2012, 11:55am by Mr Shush